Federal investigators blame pilots in wrong-airport landing

Federal authorities have blamed pilot error for a Delta Air Lines jet with 130 passengers landing at the wrong airport in South Dakota last year, noting that the flight crew had been cautioned that the two airports are close and easy to confuse.

Delta Flight 2845 from Minneapolis landed July 7 at Ellsworth Air Force Base, about 6 miles (10 kilometers) northwest of the intended destination, Rapid City Regional Airport. The flight crew misidentified the runway due to excess altitude and failure to use all the navigation information available to them, according to the National Transportation Safety Board's final report. The report, adopted May 26, was first reported by the Rapid City Journal on Tuesday.

The two airfields have runways running northwest-to-southeast that nearly line up, with compass headings only 10 degrees apart, the report noted. Pilot confusion between the two is "fairly common," the report said, though air traffic controllers and flight crews usually catch the error before landing. Previous mistaken landings at the base include a Northwest Airlines flight in 2004 and a business jet in 2015.

Delta's own pilot guidance notes that Ellsworth lies northwest of Rapid City on final approach to the runway where the crew intended to land. "These airports have similar runway alignment and can be mistaken for one another," the guidance says.

In this case, the report said, a controller who cleared the crew for a visual approach to Rapid City from the northwest advised them, "use caution for Ellsworth Air Force base located 6 miles northwest of Rapid City Regional."

The first officer acknowledged the clearance and asked the captain: "'You got the right one in sight?' The captain replied, 'I hope I do,'" the report said.

The Ellsworth runway came up first. The crew realized its mistake just before touchdown, but decided it was safest to complete the landing.

Delta spokesman Michael Thomas said Tuesday that the captain retired shortly after the incident, and the first officer underwent retraining and is back flying for Delta. He said the airline would let the NTSB report speak for itself.

According to the report, the pilot was 60 years old at the time while the first officer was 51.

The airline said last July that the crew was taken off duty while the NTSB investigated. The airline also offered apologies to the passengers, who were kept in the plane for about 2½ hours and ordered to pull down their window shades while base security personnel investigated.

An Associated Press search three years ago of government safety data and news reports since the early 1990s found at least 150 flights in which U.S. commercial passenger and cargo planes had either landed at the wrong airport or started to land and realized their mistake in time.